Horses don’t factor into it. Neither do expensive mallets and uniforms, or images of Prince Charles and the wealthy elite. Unlike traditional equestrian polo, hard-court bike polo is lean, mean, dirt-cheap and more likely to be played with mallets made of old ski poles and PVC pipe.
At 6 every Wednesday evening, a group of area bicycle riders get together to play hard-court bike polo at the tennis courts at Williams Park, located at the corner of Newbury and Hancock streets in Bangor. Two teams of three bikers pursue a bright orange street hockey ball back and forth across the court, trying to guide it through one of the two goalposts, signified by two street cones at either end of the court.
It can get a little rough — players fall off their bikes at least a few times each game, though injuries thus far haven’t amounted to more than a small scratch. It can get a little rude, too, with playful trash-talking rampant throughout the match.
It’s different, it’s free, and it’s a lot of fun.
“I saw some people in Portland doing it, and I thought it would be a good thing to bring up to Bangor,” said James Fox, a 26-year-old Hampden resident, who organizes the matches. “Aside from long rides, there’s not much to do up here for people who ride bikes. It’s something really fun to do on a recovery day, after a long ride.”
Fox is a member of a group of riders called the Black Ribbon Bicycle Crew. The group started in 2008, after Fox and fellow Bangor area cyclists Brent Hall and Joel Egland made a Facebook group to organize group rides. As the Facebook group page states, the Black Ribbon Bicycle Crew is “like the Hell’s Angels … but with 4 percent body fat.”
People who ride bikes are a loose but devoted crowd. Some are dedicated road riders, the spandex-clad folks you see riding 40, 50, even 60 miles in an afternoon. Some are mountain bikers, always on the search for new trails. Some use their bike as their sole means of transportation once the weather clears. Some ride fixed gears, the fashionable bikes with no freewheel, which means the pedals are always moving and reverse riding is possible. Some fall into the trick bike, BMX camp. Some just like to ride bikes.
Hard-court bike polo differs from traditional bicycle polo, which has eight players, is played on a grass polo field and has its origins in colonial India, where British troops would use bicycles to hone their equestrian polo skills. Bicycle polo is still played today — but it’s more urban, rough-and-tumble cousin, hard-court bike polo, is the one gaining followers.
New York, Seattle, Minneapolis and London all boast popular polo groups, though small groups are present in communities all over the world. Tournaments are held in most large cities. The game has its roots in the Seattle bike messenger scene, but the game spread through word of mouth across the country and into Europe and the rest of the world.
“I believe it started on the West Coast, maybe 10 years ago,” said Fox. “It’s an urban thing. You don’t have to have a lot of money to play. Just a bike, a mallet and a hard, flat surface of some sort. You could play in a parking lot if you wanted.”
Christian Malanowski, a 19-year-old Holden native, works at Pat’s Bike Shop on Wilson Street in Brewer, and has come to each match since it started in late May. Pat’s Bike Shop provides the mallets for the game, which are actual polo mallets shop owner Scott Seymour had lying around. Players usually fashion their own mallets.
“They’d been laying around for years, and no one had ever used them,” said Malanowski, who rides a fixed-gear bike. “No one had ever actually organized a polo match. Now we have an excuse to use them.”
Bike polo is for anyone with a bike — road, mountain, fixed or otherwise — and a basic level of skill. As long as you can ride one-handed and maneuver in tight quarters at a low speed, you can play bike polo. Not being afraid to get up close and personal with your fellow players, or even risk a few scrapes and bruises, is a plus.
“It’s not, like, a really intensive, difficult game to play. The premise is pretty easy,” said Fox. “The more skills you have, though, the better you’ll be at it.”
Fox and company originally wanted to hold bike polo at the track at William S. Cohen School on Garland Street — but school track meets naturally got in the way. Someone tipped him to the fact that there was a tennis court at Williams Park, on the corner of Newbury and Hancock streets, near St. John Catholic Church.
“I didn’t even know this court was here,” said Fox. “I don’t think it’s been used in years.”
Though a double tennis court would be ideal, the Williams Park tennis court was available and big enough for polo. The only other problem? The asphalt was cracked, with grass growing in it, and the sides were overgrown with bushes and weeds.
“It wasn’t even usable as a tennis court. There was no net or anything,” said Fox. “So we brought some brooms and shovels and got rid of some of the overgrowth. We still need to get someone in there to fix the cracked asphalt. If we can fix it up so people besides us can use it, even better.”
The first match attracted just six people. By its third week, 12 were in attendance, with both men and women playing. It also has attracted its share of curious onlookers, many of whom are neighborhood kids playing on the playground at the park, or basketball players engaged in a game of pickup ball.
“I was like, ‘What are they doing?’ said a 7-year-old named Ben, who stopped playing to watch the game during the June 2 match. “It looks crazy. It looks fun. I want to play, but I think my bike is too small.”
To join the hard-court bike polo matches, simply show up at Williams Park at 32 Newbury St. in Bangor, at 6 p.m. Wednesdays. All you need to bring is a bike with the handlebars plugged. Men and women are both welcome.